Matches, we are told over and over again, are not won on paper. Nor are they won in a manager’s head. We would have been wise, as fans, to heed to that first mantra. Benito Floro, Canada’s head coach, would have been wise to heed the latter.
Reminders that CONCACAF is unpredictable were everywhere leading up to this match: Haiti held heavily-favoured Panama to a draw, Honduras often looked superior in their loss to the US and the current regional leader in both FIFA and ELO rankings were lucky to escape their match against Jamaica with a draw. Canada and its fans were not delusional in believing they could get three points against El Salvador. When comparing the players available to the head coaches for this match, it was clear that Canada had the upper hand – on paper.
Where Floro went wrong was in deploying his personnel. As colour commentator Janusz Michallik pointed out during the Fox broadcast, getting three points in the first match of a tournament is absolutely crucial. When the team sheet was first made public last night, a figurative gasp from Canada’s supporters could be heard. It was clear that Floro was not playing his best lineup, in a formation that appeared negative (4-1-4-1). I’ve yet to see Floro’s post-match comments, but I can rationalize the selection: weaker opponent with three matches in nine days and intense travel schedule. Floro was so deep in his own head that he compromised Canada’s opening result in sending out a weaker lineup against El Salvador, gambling that the personnel would be good enough to get the win and keeping his better players’ legs fresh for tougher opponents in Jamaica and Costa Rica. The problem was not the gamble; it was in doubling down when everyone could see it wasn’t working.
If you’re trying to win your first match of the tournament, there’s no good reason to start Kyle Bekker and Adam Straith over Russell Teibert and Jonathan Osorio. Kyle Bekker is at best a late substitution in a match that’s pretty much already decided. Adam Straith is a defender, not a sweeper or defensive midfielder. Julian de Guzman’s pre-match fitness test failure certainly created a problem for Floro, but the solution was to put Samuel Piette in that role, not Straith. Furthermore, when the evidence at hand suggests the plan isn’t working, early substitutions are crucial. Despite my yelling at the television (sorry, neighbours), those subs did not materialize until it was too late.
It was clear early on that El Salvador were going to be a handful. Canada’s defence started the match looking very shaky. Marcel de Jong at left back looked particularly exposed, committing a series of fouls and stray passes that left Canada vulnerable to the Salvadoran attack. Straith was also vulnerable to the speed of the opponent’s attack, launching himself this way and that trying to cope.
It was clear that Floro’s strategy was to try and capitalize on Canada’s size and strength advantage by mainly playing through the air. For a while, it looked like Canada was getting more touches with their heads than their feet. Unfortunately, the result of this strategy relegated the Canadian midfield to onlookers as the ball sailed over them time and again. Ricketts and Akindele would push up the wings to help Larin break the Salvadoran back line, but without the support of Piette or Bekker, this was mostly in vain.
Canada did get a few opportunities in the first half. In the 12th minute, Bekker curled a beautiful corner kick over the Salvadoran defence, which seemed to take Piette off guard as he put his free header over the bar. That was nowhere near as glaring a miss as what happened to Cyle Larin in the 36th minute. After Nik Ledgerwood pressured the Salvadorans into a bad pass that deflected to Larin, the Orlando City man collected the ball just on the cusp of being offside and with only one defender to stop him. He controlled the pass on the run which negated the defender and put him in one on one with keeper Derby Carrillo. With a nifty side-step, Larin sent Carrillo to the ground and looked up to see an empty net. His forward momentum was making the angle to goal more and more tight, so he rushed his shot and got under the ball, sending what should have been a sure goal into the stands. Canada would get other chances throughout the match. Marcus Haber, a 69th minute sub for Larin, got into a good position to direct a cross onto goal, but he sent it straight into Carrillo’s arms.
El Salvador also created a number of opportunities for themselves, mostly created through quick play and agile dribbling. At one point in the first half, wave after wave of attack exposed Canada’s defenders. Irvin Herrera, who was a 10th minute substitution for the injured Nelson Bonilla, and Arturo Alvarez were especially difficult to deal with. Canadian keeper Kenny Stamatopoulos had to make a number of acrobatic saves, yet also contributed in a spike in the Canadian population’s collective blood pressure just before halftime.
After some nifty moves from the Salvadoran attack forced a save from Stamatopoulos, the ball was deflected back up into the air. Stamatopoulos came out to meet it, but instead of making what looked like an easy catch, he whiffed on a punch that fell to a Salvadoran boot. Thankfully, Stamatopoulos recovered just in time to make a panicked save, but this type of mistake may cost him the opportunity to start for the rest of the tournament. This is totally unfair to both keepers, but I couldn’t help thinking back to Paul Onstad’s punch into his own net during the last round of World Cup Qualifying.
Eventually, and much too late, Floro did make the changes that begged to be made. Samuel Piette was replaced by Russell Teibert in the 83rd minute, followed soon after by Jonathan Osorio coming on for Kyle Bekker. Immediately, the mood of the match changed, with Canada on the front foot, something we had expected when this matchup was first announced. Teibert quickly got a laser of a shot on goal from distance that missed by mere inches. Osorio was a bulldog in the middle of the park chasing down balls, desperate to put his mark on the match. El Salvador turtled after these players came on, and you have to wonder how different the result may have been had Osorio and Teibert had an extra 20 minutes on the field.
Overall, neither team deserved to win. Both Canada and El Salvador were poor, with a lack of technique and control evident throughout. The speed of play and the sharpness of passing was found lacking, and missed opportunities from both sides were glaring. Watching this match in a vacuum, free of expectations or knowledge of the managerial mistakes by Floro, you’d say that a draw between these teams was a fair result. We know better, though.
The road ahead just got a lot tougher for Canada. This was the match they needed to get the three points, and they failed. Every team in the group is now on one point, but Canada will now have to get a win against Jamaica or Costa Rica in order to ensure its advancement to the quarterfinal stage.
Man of the Match: Irvin Herrera, El Salvador
Next match: Canada faces Jamaica in Houston on Saturday at 18:30 EST (Sportsnet World/360).